The pooch reads Rawls

P1020777 - Version 2

Posted by Stephen, this post is a follow up to the “Aristotelian Dog” and is a brief introduction to the relevance of John Bordley Rawls (1921 – 2002), who has been described as the most important political philosopher of the twentieth century, certainly in Western democracies. His work also covers a huge range of thinking in moral philosophy.  It is difficult to do justice to the full range and subtlety of his work but there are some key ideas that we should start with. The link to Aristotle and the last post becomes clearer towards the end.

A brief bio: Rawls studied at Princeton University, served in the second world war as an infantryman in the Pacific conflict and it is said that his war time experiences had a lasting effect on his subsequent work. After earning his PhD from Princeton in 1950, Rawls taught there until 1952, when he received a Fellowship at Christchurch Oxford. There, he was influenced by the liberal political theorist and historian Isaiah Berlin and the legal theorist H.L.A. Hart. In 1962, Rawls became a full professor of philosophy at Cornell, then MIT, before moving to Harvard University where he taught for almost forty years, and where he trained some of the leading contemporary figures in moral and political philosophy.

The major work that started the ‘ball rolling’ is A Theory of Justice (TJ), published in 1971 it has sold over a quarter of a million copies, attracted an estimated 5000 works of secondary literature and received criticism and development from all sides of the political spectrum. Anyone from the British political class who read politics and philosophy will have studied this work.

His biographers suggest that Rawls was amazed by the impact of TJ and spent a great deal of his career defending, elaborating and developing his ideas. TJ is not always, in my humble opinion, an easy read, but there are some striking phrases and metaphors in it, which lead to good discussions. A collection of lectures and papers entitled Political Liberalism (PL) published in 1993 is an easier read and advances his ideas. Shortly before his death he published Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001) as a kind of last word on the subject. In later years he also turned his considerable intellect to questions of international justice. Some of his lectures on moral philosophers are collected together and are worth reading for their insight.

The original position, and the veil of ignorance:

Rawls wanted to build on the tradition of social contract theories that stem from Hobbes (although Rawls does not mention Hobbes), Locke, Rousseau and Kant, and to take them to another level of abstraction.   All these theories are quite different in many ways, but they have some things in common. For example, they start with a view about the state of nature, humans as they might be without society or social context, and argue for social arrangements of co-operation or government that are needed if humans are to live together. This would be a form of contract. In some theories the contract is represented as real, in others it is hypothetical. In aspects of contract theory, one has to give up certain things in order to gain greater goods (e.g. in order to be protected we give up some of our income via taxation). In other words, one has to justify obedience to the state when such a state is a coercive entity.

Rawls owes something to Kant in the notion of the autonomy and reasoning capacity of each individual. He grounds his theory of justice in the public recognition by each citizen of what constitutes a sense of justice, political stability follows from this quality of human agency in developed societies. For Rawls the key issue is not about obedience to the state but:

“How is it possible that there may exist over time a stable and just society of free and equal citizens profoundly divided by religious, philosophical and moral doctrines?” and he asks: “What are the fair terms of social cooperation between citizens characterised as free and equal yet divided by profound conflict?” (Political Liberalism, (PL) 1996 edition p. xxvii)

So in the original position one has to imagine that we meet for the very first time and know nothing about each other – nothing about each other’s lives, interests, histories and so forth. We are then asked to choose principles of justice, and so we are to do this from behind “a veil of ignorance”.

Justice as fairness and the difference principle:

The original position is much more than an intellectual thought experiment (Rawls called it a “device of representation’); given that agents in the original position are free to choose any principles, Rawls goes through the possibilities that might emerge, and rejects several solutions, especially those credible alternatives that might be presented by forms of utilitarianism. He partly grounds his argument in how real people might ultimately act out of self-interest if they did not know what the others bring to the party.

Rawls argues that we would act to maximize our share of the “primary goods: liberty, opportunity, money and the social basis of self-respect”. But in the original position where you have no history so to speak, to maximize your share of the distribution requires thinking about other people; if everyone is out for themselves there is a danger that we lose out to someone more powerful or advantaged. We have a capacity to act morally because we can be moved by awareness of other people’s needs as if they are also our own.

Justice as fairness is about the distribution of the ‘primary goods’; these goods are not necessarily ends in themselves but lead to other ends, especially if they promote the freedoms to choose. However, he also says that “justice as fairness assigns a certain primacy to the social” and that his principles take cognizance of the social nature of our being (the social contract or co-operative element).

So from the original position, behind a veil of ignorance, Rawls argues that we would come up with something like the following two principles (although they read more like three as you will see):

“First each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the scheme of basic liberties for all.
Second: social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: (a) they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and (b), they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least -advantaged members of society (the difference principle)”  (Justice as Fairness: A restatement, 2001, pp 42 -43).

This formulation of justice as fairness is a reformulation of the original ones made in TJ in 1971, I think there is some debate over how substantive a difference is made by these tweaks.

Note that these principles are what he calls ‘lexically ordered’: they have to be satisfied in sequence from first to third in order to be workable principles.

The difference principle has had a profound influence on the terms of social-democratic argument. The principle was not he argued to be thought of as a means of redress, although it may end up having that effect, but is qualified by the terms ‘fair equality of opportunity’ in the second principle.   So for instance, Rawls rejected any principle of distribution that used desert as a moral criterion. He argued that there are four possible interpretations of the difference principle in justifying a distribution of goods: natural liberty, liberal equality, natural aristocracy and democratic equality. The argument is a little complex, but he comes down on democratic equality. Natural aristocracy, ‘noblesse oblige’ in all its forms assumes that there is a natural hierarchy in life, a position post-enlightenment thinking radically undermined. Interpretations based on principles of natural liberty and liberal equality rest on considerations of who deserves what (e.g. one might deserve a college place because you are relatively disadvantaged relative to an equally well qualified candidate).  Rawls rejects desert as a criterion for distribution: it is a matter of luck as to what talents or social advantages you are born with, you do not ‘deserve’ them and therefore they cannot be used to decide what is to be your ‘fair share’ of primary goods.

So how does the difference principle then frame education policy? Rawls argued that:

“.. the difference principle would allocate resources in education, say, so as to improve the long-term expectations of the least favored. If this end is attained by giving more attention to the better endowed, it is permissible, but otherwise not. And in making this decision, the value of education should not be assessed only in terms of economic efficiency and social welfare. Equally if not more important is the role of education in enabling a person to enjoy the culture of his society and to take part in its affairs, and in this way to provide for each individual a secure sense of his own worth” (TJ 1973 p101).

Later he adds that resources are: “not to be allotted solely or necessarily mainly according to their return as estimated in productive trained abilities, but also according to their worth in enriching the personal and social life of citizens, including here the less favored. As society progresses the latter consideration becomes increasingly more important.” (ibid p107, emphasis added).

Like Michael Young, Rawls foresaw inherent dangers in meritocracy as a social principle since it can lead to the protection of privilege through education for those who already hold it.

There is a lot of detail that needs to be argued out from the framework of justice of fairness but it does force us to ask whether our education system is promoting the enrichment of all its citizens and demand that we broaden the terms of the debate beyond the merely economic criteria of success that seems so dominant today.

However, many difficult questions still remain, for example, what is the detailed role of the state in providing education, and what should the content of the curriculum be? I think that Rawls’s argument is that these are matters for a well-ordered, pluralistic society to argue about through its political institutions, to find some sort of ‘overlapping consensus’ that satisfies the difference principle without promoting one single ‘comprehensive doctrine’. But that still leaves the question of how does a school run and organised under the terms of a comprehensive doctrine (e.g. a religious school) to relate to a pluralistic society? Rawls would answer that question through the ‘democratic conception’.

The ‘democratic conception’ of justice as fairness is designed to be less comprehensive than the liberalisms of Kant and Mill who valued above all else individual autonomy and freedom of thought from doctrine. For Rawls:

“…justice as fairness does not seek to cultivate the distinctive virtues and values of the liberalisms of autonomy and individuality, or indeed of any other comprehensive doctrine. For in that case it ceases to be a form of political liberalism. Justice as fairness honors, as far as it can, the claims of those who wish to withdraw from the modern world in accordance with the injunctions of their religion, provided only that they acknowledge the principles of the political conception of justice and appreciate its political ideals of person and society” (PL 1996, p200).

Rawls attempts to limit the questions of children’s education within the political conception: society’s concerns should rest in their future role as citizens and how well education supports children to “honor the fair terms of social cooperation in their relations with the rest of society” (ibid p199).

One might argue that Rawls has swapped a range of possible comprehensive doctrines for one more abstract tradition. However, I think his proposition is more subtle than that for he seems to accept Isaiah Berlin’s contention that liberalism in offering freedoms also entails losses and that a pluralistic society will inevitably entail the loss for some sets of beliefs and freedoms.

Justice as fairness is an attempt by Rawls to underpin a ‘thin’ theory of human goods that enables the democratic conception to develop a well-ordered society:

“…the fundamental organizing idea of justice as fairness, within which the other basic ideas are systematically connected, is that of society as a fair system of cooperation over time, from one generation to the next. ….In their political thought, and in the discussion of political questions, citizens do not view the social order as a fixed natural order, or as an institutional hierarchy justified by religious or aristocratic values”. (PL, p. 15)

The principles of justice will generate their own support as they become embedded into social institutions, people come to accept their fairness and develop a desire to act in accordance with their principles.

This argument is an extension of what Rawls termed the Aristotelian Principle (TJ 1973, p424):  “… other things equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities (their innate or trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity.

Aristotle did not state this as a principle but Rawls derives it from his reading of the Nicomachean Ethics. Furthermore: “The Aristotelian Principle is a principle of motivation.   It accounts for many of our major desires, and explains why we prefer to do some things and not others by constantly exerting an influence over the flow of our activity” (ibid p427). Rawls talks about the strains between the desire for increasing challenge and the efforts required to satisfy the motivation, but there are obviously possibilities for training mature capacities. In addition, taking pleasure ‘in displays of human excellence’ is likely to involve social cooperation and common ends. However, the principle indicates a trend and not an inevitability, so a critical question is how far is this ‘deep psychological’ ‘fact’ to be supported and encouraged and “how is it to be reckoned with in framing rational plans for life” (ibid p432)? For instance, what are we to make of the man whose sole happiness is counting blades of grass?

I am going to leave that question open for the reader to think about, perhaps you have guessed from the little I have written here, why Rawls offered this ‘fanciful’ example, and what his response might be. For me there is a tension between having already developed and acquired substantive, values and commitments that motivate us to pursue ‘worthwhile’ ends, and finding a ‘rational’ dispassionate place from which to critique and renew these commitments (an argument taken up by Michael Sandel and Alasdair MacIntyre).

For now though, to read John Rawls is to be forced to think deeply about the nature of justice and to ask whether the principles of justice as fairness are exhaustive of all that is possible, or as good as we can hope for, in an imperfect world. To think about justice also asks one to confront what it means to be a citizen within political liberalism and how education as a social institution promotes both the difference principle and the enriching of political virtues. No easy answers here but I hope to develop some of these themes in future posts.